Fighting fund banner


Colleges must step out of the shadows for fair pay

15 September 2017

Ahead of Tuesday's pay talks between UCU and the Association of Colleges, UCU's head of further education Andrew Harden (pictured) says the decline in pay cannot continue if colleges are to attract and retain staff.

Andrew Harden

Who would put up with a £32,000 cut in their pay? That's how much an average college CEO/principal would have lost since 2009 if they were subject to the same decline in real wages as other college staff.

Even on the generous remuneration our college leaders receive, a pay cut of 23.6% would hurt. Imagine how much more it hurts if £32,000 is what you were being paid to begin with.

On Tuesday representatives from the Association of Colleges (AoC) will meet with the further education (FE) sector's trade unions for a second time this year to discuss the unions' pay and conditions claim for 2017/18.

At the last meeting in May, the AoC representatives said they had no mandate from their members to make an offer on pay. Last week I wrote to college leaders asking them to give the AoC a clear mandate ahead of Tuesday's meeting to make an offer on pay that does not see staff pay fall further behind.

I was at the AoC's reception just before the summer break and was pleased to hear its chief executive David Hughes speak so powerfully about the great work that staff do in our colleges. David is not alone in recognising the contribution staff make, or how lost the sector would be without their commitment and drive.

Speak to anyone who teaches in FE and it quickly becomes clear that the thing that first attracted them was the difference they felt they could make for their learners. As a sector though we have a problem when people like that - people who want so much to teach in FE - feel they can no longer afford to.

The AoC's college workforce survey released in March found that 95% of colleges said they had difficulty filling posts during 2015/16. The top three most difficult to fill posts were all in teaching (which was also the case in the previous two surveys).

The report also highlighted the problem of low pay; just one in 20 (5%) colleges said they did not have difficulty recruiting to posts, and two-thirds (64%) cited low pay as a reason for recruitment difficulties.

Put simply, the holding back of staff pay cannot continue and we expect the AoC to come to the table on Tuesday with an offer that reverses the recent trend of below inflation pay increases and even pay freezes.

We are clear that further cuts in real pay must not continue. As I explained in last week's letter to principals, we are consulting our members in FE about their willingness to take industrial action if we feel the AoC does not make an acceptable offer.

As a sector that has often found itself in the shadow of higher education - where the decision makers and their children study - I feel we find ourselves in a unique moment where we are perhaps finally understood to be the solution to many of the country's challenges.

A report from the Social Market Foundation in April this year said that, "although the FE sector faces a series of challenges over the next two decades, it can seize the opportunity to play an even greater role in helping people of all ages raise their skills and wages."

It also explained how leaving the European Union could present a massive opportunity for the sector, arguing that boosting the technical skills of British workers, young and old, should be an urgent priority for politicians.

Meanwhile, the Social Mobility Commission's chairman told a conference in July that "our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country's talent not just some of it."

There are consequences to the sector's pay going backwards and they are well documented in the AoC's own surveys. FE has more reason than ever to be confident in its mission and its promise to the country.

This should be the time for the sector to stride out and confidently make clear the difference it can make to address the challenges we face both now and in the post-Brexit years. We need leaders that are prepared to offer more than warm words to their staff, something we hope to see evidence of at Tuesday's meeting.

Like so much in the world at the moment, it feels as if the future of FE sits in the balance. Let's seize this moment together.

Last updated: 16 August 2022